The Recession

Most Families Fare Better Economically When Mom Stays Home

| by Suzanne Venker

For some time, the prevailing wisdom in America has been that most mothers "have to work." This argument has become such a fait accompli that few dare to question its logic. But with our economy on shaky ground, and with many parents losing their jobs, it's time to rethink this issue.

It's one thing for mothers to work because they want to, and another to suggest they have no choice in the matter. The assertion that "most mothers have to work today" has created a nation of men and women who've fallen prey to the modern concept of work and family: that they inevitably go together and cannot be extricated. In truth, the idea that dual-income families are as necessary as bread and water is one of the reasons we're in this economic mess.

According to the Public Agenda report "Necessary Compromises," most parents – 70 percent – believe it's best if one parent stays home when children are young. Yet almost this same figure – 68 percent – agrees with the statement, "Having one parent stay at home is an unrealistic option for most families these days." Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), many parents in dual-income families have now lost their jobs; and some have young children at home.

Consequently, they're about to find out that, unless the second income was a six-figure salary, it was actually costing them to both work. In the majority of cases, a second income is eaten up by child care costs, commuting costs, eating out, work attire, dry cleaning, convenience foods and, of course, taxes. By the time you add it up, there isn't much left. In 1997, the Census Bureau reported that the difference in the median income level of families with children under 18 in which both the husband and wife work full-time and year round and families in which only one spouse worked was $17,638. After subtracting work-related costs, the average two-income family in America nets perhaps several thousand dollars a year.

Moreover, we haven't been able to put our wealth in proper perspective. As David Brooks writes in New York Times Magazine, wealth "really does seep into your soul." As a result, "life becomes a vectorial thrust toward perpetual gain and aspiration fulfillment. It takes a force of willpower beyond the call of most ordinary people to renounce all this glorious possibility."

And, of course, we didn't renounce this "glorious possibility" – which is one of the reasons our economy is faltering. It's also why we refer to at-home mothers as "lucky" – because the alternative is to believe these women are somehow able to renounce that second income and live without abundance. (Yet, this is precisely what most mothers at home do.)

"Better-off Americans are nearly as likely to say they work for basic necessities as those who live near the poverty line," write Shannon Brownlee and Matthew Miller of U.S. News & World Report. It's only because of recent layoffs that many parents are being forced to renounce a second income – and for them, it will be hard.

They will have to do things they never thought possible. Like cancel cable television. Or use cell phones just for emergencies. Or go out for lunch instead of dinner. Or not go out at all but cook their meals instead. Or iron their shirts instead of take them to the dry cleaner. Or make lunch at home instead of buy it at work. Or skip the Starbucks and learn how to use a coffeemaker. Or keep the same car for 10 years. Or check books and DVDs out from the library instead of buying them from a bookstore or renting from Blockbuster. Or not buy their kids a lot of toys they'll never use. Or only go on vacation once a year, or maybe every other year. Or live in a smaller home. Or have simple birthday parties at home instead of renting a place. Or buy clothes they need rather than clothes they want. Or forgo that massage. Or fire their housekeepers and clean their own houses. Or cut their kids' hair themselves. Or cancel their gym membership and go running instead. To the modern generation all of this constitutes sacrifice; to previous generations it was just life. And that life allowed mothers to be home.

There will always be mothers who have no choice but to work full time; but unlike the Depression, we didn't all of a sudden hit a point at which mothers had to leave their homes in mass droves in order to make ends meet. We created a life that demanded it. As Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, authors of "The Millionaire Next Door," write, "Most people have it all wrong about wealth in America. Wealth is not the same as income. If you make a good income and spend it all, you are not getting wealthier. You are just living high." And as our new economy demonstrates, most dual-income families were doing just that.

The truth is that the dual-income family – in which both parents are employed full-time and year-round – is a trap. Do the math, change your lifestyle, and most families will fare better economically if one parent stays home. So if you're a parent in a two-income household and you've lost your job, don't go looking for another one just yet. Embrace your newfound wealth.

Do working moms put their children at a disadvantage? Click here to see our Opposing Views debate.